Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Spotlight on "Expanding Human"

By Larry Blamire

Larry, what are you thinking? Have you taken leave of your senses? Are you insane?

Questions I'm asked every day, of course, but in this case specifically regarding the utter foolhardiness of attempting to put a positive spin on "Expanding Human", an OUTER LIMITS episode usually croaked in the same breath as "Behold Eck!" or "Counterweight" as the most abysmal samples of Season Two.

Certainly nothing I say here will make you, the OL fan, "like" or even "go steady with" this lesser episode of the lesser season. I myself don't think it's great, wouldn't even call it good really. But in recent years some aspects of the show have come to appeal to me more and more.

Let me back up.

My favorite period for crime films is the 1950s when cinematic lawbreaking was dragged kicking and screaming into broad, cold daylight. It was a new realism, fueled by NAKED CITY and other location-based pseudodocumentaries, often with authoritative stentorian narration. The postwar shadowy, canted camera, crazy-quilt darkness of brilliant Anthony Mann/John Alton noir collaborations like T-MAN and RAW DEAL gave way to equally brilliant bleached black and white mean city streets of Don Siegel's THE LINEUP and Stanley Kubrick's THE KILLING. The Cold War down-and-dirty doc approach put an audience hungry for realism smack in the midst of the action--in their very own city, right around the corner or up the block.

The transition in OUTER LIMITS' season break (and regime) curiously resulted in something similar, though not entirely by design. In some cases, the shadowy, canted camera, crazy-patterned darkness of the Stevens/Stefano/Oswald/Hall period morphed into the warts-and-all starkness and minimalism of shows like "Expanding Human".

As a genre piece, it shares a berth with such 50s low budget location-fests as THE INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN, HAND OF DEATH and THE HIDEOUS SUN DEMON (or for studio fare, MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS), entertaining cheapies that share that monster-in-the-streets sense of simple fun. It was while enjoying a bout of these, wearing my appropriate Mindless 50s Fun Headset (you should see it, it's cool), that I saw "Expanding Human" as not an OUTER LIMITS at all, but a more superficial guilty pleasure--a harmless and diverting little grade B monster movie (much the way S1's "Specimen: Unknown" or "Tourist Attraction" resemble higher grade efforts).

BUT FIRST, THE NEGATIVES:

1) Yes, it would have been fascinating had the show tackled consciousness-expanding drugs with any kind of serious thought or imagination, as the setup promises. As DJS points out, it's merely a vehicle for Dr. Leary and Mr. Hyde, like the coelocanth blood that turns Arthur Franz into the previously noted campus monster. Sorry--no ALTERED STATE-of-the-union here, folks.

2) The "expansion" in question is pretty dubious. The UberClinton promises "a world of glories", but indicates executions, "maybe in the thousands". Let's face it, he may be psychic, super-strong, and smart--but really, folks, he's a monster pure and simple. in fact, I'd say the only thing NOT expanded is his consciousness.

3) As DJS notes, Homeier's leaps of logic via the Vegas angle are absurdly accepted by the authorities. Really?

4) Finally, even as a B movie cheapie I have to say the show somewhat lacks thrills. A couple more gratuitous monster attacks wouldn't have hurt. However, there is another aspect I will get to, that helps make up for this.

NOW, THE GOOD STUFF:

The opening is one big tease of a Season One reminder; dark and shadowy with creepy low angles. The murder of the watchman is chilling in its effortless simplicity, particularly the victim's nasty gasp. The shot of his feet lifting off the floor would become a cliche in cinematic demonstrations of great strength to come (yeah, yeah, Darth Vader). And that's it for shadows. No such darkness pervades the remainder of the episode.

But something else does. A strange mood. I can't quite put my finger on it, but there is a kind of bargain basement queasiness here that I find appealing, a kind of depressed ambience that seems to exude from its very blandness--a welcome relief from S2's preoccupation with cocktails and barbecues.

Take that pasty-faced LA courtyard I've grown fond of. It reaks of crime scene, just begging for police tape. You can't throw a knife in Hollywood or the Valley without hitting one of these places. Makes no difference how close it might be to Daystar or Paramount--all we know is its bleak neo-noir ambience of sun and seed would be right at home in Polanski's CHINATOWN, its dishwater dull interiors something out of Nathaniel West. Our first daytime view of a pumped-up Dr. Clinton is there, via a well executed obscuring by foreground lamp.

Another location that lends cheapie street cred is the office building; a real building with real elevators. There are no extras inside or out, no doubt due to budget, which also probably nixed us seeing the penthouse murder. But the emptiness, the strange desolation, help make up for that by fueling the vaguely dreamlike quality that lingers throughout the episode. It's there when Dr. Peter Wayne thinks he sees Clinton through the fountain (another nice foreground obscure), and when the elevator op and receptionist have no recollection of the murderous visitor. It's there too with the discovery of Akada's corpse lying peacefully in that bleak apartment at midday, not to mention his sudden return from the dead (the actor's rather strange delivery doesn't hurt).

These two different sensibilities working on me--low budget 50s monster movie and dream ambience--might not be as disparate as they first seem. Many of my favorite vintage scifi-horror films are marked by an undeniable surrealism. Here it seems somehow in keeping with Clinton's fugue state, his dissociative behavior. What's responsible for this? Purely an accident of budget? Oswald pitching, Peach catching, bases loaded in the ninth? A different colorful metaphor I can't think of?

The climax disappointed me initially; after effective shows of strength from our title character--well sold a couple of times by the strapping Keith Andes--culminating in a most impressive lift-and-toss of a cop through a window, the end seemed too quiet. Where's the hail of bullets for the monster that we've been leading up to? Now I think it's effective in its simplicity; the drug wears off and Clinton bleeds to death. Dream over B movie.

As a kid I confess I did not like Skip Homeier (or "poor Skip" as a veteran character actor friend of mine calls him). He was in one of the weakest episodes of my beloved COMBAT (no, not a Nazi--a GI) and probably the most embarrassing STAR TREK ever (again, not the Nazi one, "The Way to Eden"--I think Charles Napier sings). For me, there was just something about that great voice that sounded too controlled, too radio-announcerish. Homeier did play a few Nazis, but really he became more of a western guy, beginning with an important (almost iconic) portrayal in Henry King's THE GUNFIGHTER with Gregory Peck, as what would later become a stock character; the cocky young fast draw who wants to beat the top gun.

The years have softened my opinion of him. Just recently I caught an episode of THE VIRGINIAN where he was quite engaging as a dogged San Francisco police detective. Then there's the bizarro RAWHIDE episode "Incident of the Blue Fire" where he is subject of a truly startling climactic scene that I won't spoil, acquitting himself rather well. In "Expanding Human" his haughty superman has grown on me.

Keith Andes--who admitted to being mistaken for Homeier, and vice-versa--had a similarly rich baritone. But he usually came across as more natural, seeming to effortlessly convey both intelligence and sincerity. I enjoy those 1950s ZIV half-hour shows like HIGHWAY PATROL, shot on location which lend them some grit. In one of their lesser known series, THIS MAN DAWSON, Andes starred as a close-cropped supercop given unprecedented leeway in a fictional city overrun with criminal scum. I've seen some and they're fun, fairly violent procedurals. It also has one of the most ominous and intimidating title sequences for a TV series ever.

So you love it now, right? Cool.

Okay, I realize I'm largely reveling in surface quality, and limited at that--not to mention tweaked by my typically oddball perceptions. A quirky little B movie with at times the verisimilitude of a dream. I do know that I'd rather watch this one than a lot of S2; a favorite by default, perhaps?

As I said, I'm not trying to (or likely to) change anyone's opinion of this one. All I'm doing is offering a different wacky filter.

19 comments:

  1. Larry B.-

    Congratulations. For better or for worse, you've sold me on this ep. like a cheap used car salesman. Having watched it for the first time this evening, I just shrugged my shoulders, not sure quite how to take it. Not bad, but not really good, initially......

    Good call on the film noir similarities. For the life of me, for whatever reason, 'He Walked By Night,' popped into my head during the hostage climax. 2, wait, make that 3 Zantis. Just wish it had a slightly harder edge to it.

    Who'd win in a death match? The Expanding Mr. Hyde or The Megasoid?

    UTW aka Tom McMillion

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  2. No, Larry, you haven't convinced me. But that wasn't your real mission anyway. Your agenda here was to unabashedly plumb the depths of your fantasy-loving consciousness (call it your craziness, if you like; you've seen mine) and bravely try to navigate that mystery maze to explain how and why it works.

    You nobly succeeded, about as well as any of us ever can. And in the process you highlighted and backlit and composed some unique angles on a difficult episode. Bravo for that---nice use of Eck-spectacles to eyeball a few new ways of looking at it (if we ever do again).

    Enjoying the "good" ones is easy. They fall into line with widely accepted criteria---artistic, emotional, cultural---or recognizably break ground into new and exciting areas. The consensus "bad" ones are still going to be interesting to some of us, often for personal reasons beyond, and resistent to, argument.

    To even try to reason it out in a public forum takes a little courage, a little wit, and lot of self-analysis, as you did here. Will you convince many people to see it your way? Probably not. We seldom do. But like any fine writer, you created some depth of character---with respect to yourself---as well as some fresh, unique insight into the world. And that's never a waste of time or effort.

    For the record, I don't like the episode any better. What matters is that if I have occasion to watch it again (for, maybe, the 17th time---and I wouldn't have bet on the 16th, except that, lo! here came the WACT!), I'll be looking at it from a slightly altered perspective, thanks to you.

    And YOU'RE a little bit cooler a character than you already were. Somehow...more real, because of a TOL episode I don't care for.

    Magic...

    Incidentally, since we like so many of the same crappy '50s matinee-fillers, I'll just briefly note my capsule reflection on why I do. I mean, I like MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS but don't like this---so...why? Two films, equally indefensible as anything pretending to "art."

    Maybe it's no more complicated than a matter of six or seven years of development---

    As a babe and a naif of the 1950s, I had it impressed on my consciousness that the culture and mores of that period's sf/fantasy were precisely the way things ought to look and feel. So it worked for me then and it works for me now to go back to that childish mindset. Six years later, things were supposed to look and feel different, so "Expanding Human" didn't work and doesn't now.

    Or maybe I just like primitive apemen better than evolved ones? See---there's no accounting for taste.

    But thank you for even trying.

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  3. "you've sold me on this ep. like a cheap used car salesman"

    Tom/UTW, thanks for the laugh of the day for me, brother. Hey, I knew I'd get one convert!

    Ted: I, in turn, thank you for such a considerate and mensch-like commentary on my (stark, raving and mad) commentary. That's a very interesting point about the different time periods (and thus expectations) for MONSTER/CAMPUS and "Expanding Human". What resonates and why continues to fascinate the living coelacanth out of me.

    This is part of why "this OL house" is such a cool place.

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  4. Nice one, Larry -- you exposed the grotty heart of "Expounding Hambone" beautifully; I think Charlie Manson and Dennis Wilson even used to score at Los Floras Court. Yeah, illicit drug shit and death-by-hugging... Ben Brady definitely had his finger on the pulse of America's youth.

    Skip Homeier is good in an iffy third-season episode of Mannix (which also had flashes of daylight-noir brilliance, especially in its first season) scripted by John Meredyth Lucas, the ST "Patterns of Force" writer. Mike Connors punches him out (Skip, not Lucas), and even though it's one of those TV fights where every piece of furniture manages to get involved and nobody breaks even a sweat, they're at least evenly matched. Worth a look, if you can get past all the pancake Touch is wearing.

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  5. Thanks, Mark--man, you've piqued my interest in MANNIX, and I vaguely recall the earlier eps being better than the later (well, big surprise, that's usually the case). I will have to seek that sucker out.

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  6. Larry, I raise my glass of Orange Julius to you (better make that Jamba's Orange Dream Machine; today's version of Julius is watered-down swill). The relationship between 1950s sci-fi thrillers and THE OUTER LIMITS is an interesting one, beginning, appropriately enough, with a DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL-like pilot. Loud shock music, special effects, and a monster... the basic tried-and-true ingredients that drove the genre to extinction by 1959. On the big screen, of course. As we know, TV in the early '60s looked to '50s films for overall inspiration. Pick your favorite genre and there's a '60s series that managed to re-visit it. Like those WWII platoon melodramas that proliferated during the Eisenhower era? Let's do a weekly series about a tough-but-caring Sarge and his dog faced-slobs "who just want to get this dirty job done and go home" and call it COMBAT! Done deal. How about a science fiction thriller? THE OUTER LIMITS, with its bears and scares, will cover that territory. Rural comedy? Just steal THE EGG AND I and call it GREEN ACRES. An so it goes. But reality settles in at some point: this was indeed a decade later, folks, which means that while these TV shows may superficially resemble their respective '50s counterparts, their ultimate creative worth is judged by just how far they manage to transcend this semi-moldy inspiration. The crappiest episodes of LIMITS ("Tourist Attraction," "Specimen: Unknown," etc.) seem to orbit the old movies without offering anything substantially new, and as a result become guilty pleasures at best. The great shows are the ones that hit us with astonishingly fresh ideas, characters and approaches, reflecting the more sophisticated concerns and anxieties of an entirely different decade. So yeah, we can respect the true '50s groundbreakers and thoroughly enjoy those over-the-top potboilers (1958's MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS is probably Jack Arnold's least original sci-fi film, following 1953's NEANDERTHAL MAN and others of its ilk). But it's important that we understand the difference between retro fun and legitimate art. And it's that very difference that makes THE OUTER LIMITS at its best (and that includes S2 groundbreakers, such as tomorrow's show) so special and memorable.

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  7. >>And it's that very difference that makes THE OUTER LIMITS at its best (and that includes S2 groundbreakers, such as tomorrow's show) so special and memorable.

    I'm taking tomorrow off. And I've moved into an undisclosed hostel.

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  8. Won't do you any good, Peter. Ken Renard's gonna find out and bring you back!

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  9. Larry B--

    Nobly done, me lad.

    I swear to ya'---if I EVER watch this episode again, I will be armed with a printout of yer' fine commentary.

    LR

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  10. Thanks, fellow Larry; it was a dirty job but someone had to do it!

    Gary: I have always been interested in that developmental lag time that existed between movies and TV. I have found there is a similar developmental lag in music; the orchestral sophistication of 60s television scoring matches the orchestral sophistication of 50s movie scoring which was matching symphonic orchestral music of the 30s/40s (thus the dissonant film scores of the 70s corresponded roughly with the concert music of the 50s, and so on).

    At some point though I may just pick a discussion with you on "retro fun" negating artistic content, perhaps re: the surrealist content of ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS (no doubt ending up in one of those what-is-art discussions).

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  11. Larry B, you know that I agree with you about this episode. I probably like it even more than you do, for all your reasons and more.

    And the ending is just right. Melancholy, as many of us agreed was a real TOL quality, for the show itself and the viewers.

    Terrific appraisal of a much-maligned episode. I wrote my love letter to "EH" on the main episode review entry, btw.

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  12. Larry B: I thought Corman worked some pretty sophisticated and offbeat notions into his B-flicks from the '50s: CRAB MONSTERS, DAY THE WORLD ENDED, IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, THE UNDEAD, NOT OF THIS EARTH... None of these films insulted the audience; in some ways, the low budget actually allowed for freer expression and wilder experimentation. I think of these movies as a bit more than simply guilty pleasures... which I define as tasty junk (KILLER SHREWS, CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN, INVISIBLE INVADERS, THE ASTOUNDING AND SEEMINGLY NAKED SHE-MONSTER, etc.). But I think we OL addicts have it down pretty well... We've described "Keeper of the Purple Twilight" and "The Invisible Enemy" as GPs, for instance, while recognizing "The Architects of Fear" and "The Man Who Was Never Born" as the real thing. Maybe "retro fun" vs. "legitimate art" sounded a bit pompous, in retrospect. And decades of ALL sci-fi (including OL) being viewed as second-class brain rotters has clearly made us fans a tad defensive/protective about our favorite genre. That said, I really do believe it's important to distinguish between the two, while always being on the lookout for pinpoints of genius in the most unlikely of movies.

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  13. Larry B and Gary G---

    Art be damned---ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS is one fine entertainment! We needn't be overly concerned about defending it OR any of the other retro-appealing titles on Gary's list. I have every one and can watch them all shamelessly for their earnest, unironic effort at diversion, for their unbridled imagination, and for some of the damnedest problem-solving in the interest of coming in under budget the film industry's ever seen.

    We KNOW the objectively well done from the truly failed. Yet we can adjust our inner critic to appreciate both, unapologetically. If you love the genre, you can cut it a lot of slack, and that's all that matters. For me, the only mandate is, Don't bore me. That leaves a lot of latitude for some bizarre appreciations of consensus losers, for a variety of subjective reasons.

    I think that most of us weighing in on the blog feel something akin to that, which is why SOMEONE can raise an intelligent defense of just about ANY episode here---without insisting, "No, you're all wrong! This is great!" Just encouraging a new glimpse, from a different perspective, here and there.

    And I respect all those subjective slants. I don't think we have a problem with that here. The problems arise when we're outside our circle, no longer preaching to the choir.

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  14. Heck, author Danny Peary (in his CULT FILMS, vol. 1) even defended "PLAN NINE", suggesting that Ed Wood may have actually been a brilliant subversive genius whose inept piece of cinematic crud was actually his own cleverly disguised anti-militaristic protest against the government's suppression of UFO sightings.

    Remember---"When you have the Solarbanite..you have NOTHING!"

    ("Take a ball...and a can of gasoline...")

    LR

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  15. Larry R: Just nice to see Woodian quotes on here. Solaragnite...Solaramnite...

    Gary: I gotta say, my perception is that the majority of commentaries on here have been anything but consensual.

    Ted: Okay. Thank you for nixing an "art is subjective" discussion.

    Lisa! Holy cow! Someone else who gets (and digs) the weird vibe off this baby! I was pleased to see in your "love letter" both an overlap of our impressions, as well as some alternative points. Very cool.

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  16. Larrys, B. and R.---

    We love this stuff, and nobody can wring that affection out of us. It clings like lava pustules and Chromoite ribbons.

    Or, as Eros (Dudley Manlove) said in PLAN 9, and I paraphrase:

    "You have stupid minds! Stupid! STUPID!"

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  17. At one time I thought this was the worst episode of OL EVER. Not just Season 2 but EVER! Years later I bought the DVD's of the whole series and, holding my nose, watched Expanding Human for the first time in 35 years or so. I...kinda liked it. Then I watched it again to make sure I wasn't on some sort of CE drug myself and I realized this was not a bad episode at all. No "bear" in the Season One definition but as an adult and having lived through the 60's this episode resonated with me a little more than the 9 year old kid who saw it in 1964 just waiting for a "monster" and getting some guy with a puffed up brow and baritone voice instead. Now? Tourist Attraction has solidly movced into last place as the worst OL episode EVER!

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  18. "The climax disappointed me initially; after effective shows of strength from our title character--well sold a couple of times by the strapping Keith Andes--culminating in a most impressive lift-and-toss of a cop through a window, the end seemed too quiet." Don't you mean Skip, not Keith?

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  19. >>"well sold a couple of times by the strapping Keith Andes--culminating in a most impressive lift-and-toss of a cop through a window," Don't you mean Skip, not Keith?<< No, he means Keith: It's the person (apparently) being thrown around who "sells" it - the person doing the "throwing-around" isn't really doing anything, isn't really exerting any force.

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